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Kansas Governor Sam Brownback Ready for New Job Tackling Threats to Religious Freedom

Governor Sam Brownback. (File photo by Stephen Koranda)
Governor Sam Brownback. (File photo by Stephen Koranda)

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has accepted President Donald Trump’s nomination to serve as the nation's ambassador for international religious freedom. If he’s confirmed by the Senate, he would leave Kansas as the conservative fiscal policies he’s championed have been unraveling. He’ll head an office that monitors and works to fight religious persecution worldwide.  And as KPR's Stephen Koranda reports, Brownback appears to be relishing the opportunity.

“I am honored to assume, if confirmed by the Senate, such an important role,” Brownback said Thursday.

Governor Brownback, a devout Catholic, told a group of reporters gathered in his office that he’d taken communion a couple hours earlier.

“If other people do it in different parts of the world they risk their lives, or could face death, and some have faced death for doing it," he said. "People face death around the world for a simple act.”

Former Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, now with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, served in congress with Brownback and helped create the Office of International Religious Freedom in 1998.

Wolf said Brownback’s past work in places like Sudan has prepared him for the role.

“It’s not a walk in the park. You’re dealing with very, very tough regimes. Sam is very tough but very, very compassionate," Wolf said. “I think it’s a perfect fit. I think this job was made for Governor Brownback and Governor Brownback was made for this job.”

Rewind five years, and Brownback had the same room in the Statehouse packed with satisfied conservatives.

In 2012, the governor signed the law that slashed individual income tax rates and eliminated income taxes for thousands of business owners in Kansas.

“We soon will have a new, bold course on our state tax policy based on the people’s ability to work, invent and create, not the government’s ability to tax and redistribute,”  Brownback said.

Brownback said then that the “era of ever-expanding government had to come to an end.”

“But let me say clearly: we will meet the needs of our schools, our most vulnerable, and our roads will get built,” Brownback said.

“Not at all. That was completely untrue,” said the top Democrat in the Kansas Senate, Anthony Hensley, in response to the last five years of the tax plan.

He said the tax cuts strangled revenues, meaning the state had to borrow from the highway and pension funds. School funding levels were ruled unconstitutional.

“Of course the governor, I don’t think, could foresee that his tax experiment was going to be such an abject failure,” Hensley said.

After wrestling with budget shortfalls, Brownback began losing support from even some Republican lawmakers and his approval ratings fell.

Last month, legislators overrode Brownback’s veto and rolled back most of those 2012 tax cuts.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman said there are some positives to Brownback’s limited government philosophy, but he voted for the override to stabilize the budget.

“We are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring that government functions properly, and that takes a certain amount of money to accomplish that,” Hineman said.

But Brownback’s conservative allies, such as Senator Ty Masterson, said he’ll leave a positive mark on the state.

“Brownback was able to bend the growth curve of government down. He has saved Kansans billions in taxes over his term here,” Masterson said.

The rollback of Brownback’s tax cuts will be a mark on his legacy, according to University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller.

“Certainly, we can look at the totality of his career and see some successes and some failures, but this will be the policy that really writes his Wikipedia page in a decade or so,” Miller said.

Brownback himself points to the tightening of abortion regulations in Kansas as among his biggest successes as governor.

“We are a culture of life state and we’re not going back. I’ve signed 19 pro-life bills,” Brownback said when reflecting back on his career.

Those same laws garnered criticism and lawsuits from abortion-rights supporters.

Kathy Ostrowski, with the group Kansans for Life, said having Brownback in office energized social conservatives.

“He’s inspired some of the conservative leaders who had terrible bruises from the last couple decades, and he said ‘hang in there, stay with it. We’re working on a project together,’” Ostrowski said.

Brownback hasn’t said when exactly he’ll step down, but he said it will depend on when Senate hearings begin on his nomination. Lieutenant Governor Jeff Colyer, also a Christian conservative, is in line to become the next governor.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.